QUEENSLAND skipper Cameron Smith has urged his great mate Billy Slater not to push himself to breaking point in his quest for an Origin recall.
Champion fullback Slater made a triumphant return for the Melbourne Storm in their round-three defeat of the Broncos, playing his first game in more than a year following dual shoulder operations.
The 33-year-old has now played just nine first-grade games in two years, but such was his speed and level of his fitness against the Broncos, it raised expectations of a fairytale Origin comeback.
Slater is determined to recapture his cherished No.1 Maroons jumper but Smith, his long-time Queensland and Storm cohort, says Origin should be the last thing on his mind.
“The biggest thing for Billy is improving each week and maintaining the health of his shoulder,” Smith said.
“I just want to see him come back and play well for the Storm.
“If he plays well and gets back to Origin, great, but he shouldn’t be too focused on the representative games.
“If he keeps playing well for the Storm, everything else will take care of itself.”
The return of Slater could help ease a mini-injury saga for the Maroons, who have already lost key enforcer Matt Scott and star centre Greg Inglis to serious knee injuries.
Queensland’s stocks also took a hit with Slater’s Storm teammate, two-time Emerging Origin squad member Cameron Munster, suffering a broken jaw against the Broncos.
The Maroons last year overcame the loss of Will Chambers and Slater to win a 10th Origin crown in 11 years but coach Kevin Walters admits he can’t afford for his casualty ward to swell.
If the Blues have the Maroons covered in one area, it is depth, with Queensland-eligible players representing approximately 17 per cent of the NRL’s 400 registered full-timers.
“We hope to have the depth to cover the injuries we’ve suffered,” Walters said.
“This year we have lost Greg and Matt Scott, our player pool is limited with our numbers so while we can absorb a couple of injuries, we wouldn’t like to see too many more.
“That would put a hole in us. We can’t afford to have many more setbacks.
“Will Chambers and Billy missed the series last year and we got by, but we have more depth in some positions than others.
“Generally, we don’t like to be losing key players _ continuity is crucial.
“With a couple down it means we will probably have to introduce a few more to Origin this year which would be exciting for the new faces who do get selected.”
Roosters giant Dylan Napa is almost certain to be blooded as Scott’s front-row replacement, while Walters had Munster on his radar for a possible left-centre berth.
Walters hasn’t ruled out recalling Slater, a veteran of 27 Origin matches and Queensland’s pre-eminent custodian for the past decade.
“If he can come back well for the Storm, he is certainly a chance for the Origin side again,” he said.
“I haven’t put any pieces of the Origin puzzle in place, I’d like to see Billy back playing consistently and I’ll see what we need to do.
“Origin is still months away, but I know how hard he works and his input for us last year on our coaching staff was outstanding and very influential.
“It just depends on how he comes back and what influence he can have on the game.
“If he plays the way he did in the past, he will be hard to ignore.”